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Save a part of Tanglin Halt for posterity

Last Friday, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) announced its plans to rejuvenate Dawson Estate, whose transformation will include 3,700 new units that will serve as replacement flats for residents at the nearby Tanglin Halt estate.

Tanglin Halt Community Plaza, with the hexagonal food centre (right) and straight blocks of two-storey shophouses. Photo: Kenneth Koh

Tanglin Halt Community Plaza, with the hexagonal food centre (right) and straight blocks of two-storey shophouses. Photo: Kenneth Koh

Last Friday, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) announced its plans to rejuvenate Dawson Estate, whose transformation will include 3,700 new units that will serve as replacement flats for residents at the nearby Tanglin Halt estate.

The Tanglin Halt estate, comprising 31 residential blocks with 3,480 flats along Tanglin Halt Road and Commonwealth Drive, will be redeveloped under the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

These flats, completed more than 50 years ago, were among the first blocks in Singapore’s first satellite new town, Queenstown. Tanglin Halt estate held its 50th birthday bash in 2012 at Tanglin Halt Community Plaza. This is a location our pioneer generation can identify with: Its history from squatter houses to a well-planned township, with the cluster of 10-storey blocks of flats more popularly known as “chap lau chu” in Teochew and Hokkien, and the three-storey Singapore Improvement Trust flats.

Tanglin Halt Community Plaza is an open piazza, like a market square, bordered by the Commonwealth Drive Food Centre (three hexagonal blocks 1A, 2A and 3A) and three straight blocks of two-storey shophouses Blocks 46-1, 46-2 and 46-3.

The 58 tenants of these six blocks will need to move out of their hawker stalls and shops in seven years. The HDB plans to demolish Commonwealth Drive Food Centre, the shops and eating houses at Blocks 46-1, 46-2 and 46-3 and Block 39 at Tanglin Halt Road once the hawkers and tenants have relocated to a new food centre in Dawson. After this, a new neighbourhood centre, including a market and food centre, will be built on this site, creating a new community node for residents. Blocks 47 to 49 at Tanglin Halt Road will be cleared in 2024.

Commonwealth Drive Food Centre’s architecture comprises three connected hexagonal shapes joined like a honeycomb. While its shape may be considered unique, it is the whole environment that we should consider preserving. The food centre, also known as Tanglin Halt Food Centre, creates a market square that is Tanglin Halt Community Plaza when we include the three straight blocks of two-storey shophouses (Blocks 46-1, 46-2 and 46-3).

A market square is a feature of many old European towns. It is an open area where stalls open for business, sometimes on a particular day of the week or “Market Day”. A market square is usually surrounded by important buildings and offices such as a town hall, places of worship and a post office. Such market squares existed here in the past, in the old Kallang Airport, for example. Today, I can only think of a small market square in Commonwealth Crescent.

The HDB obviously feels there is a need for a commercial centre in this location and that is why it intends to rebuild this site into a neighbourhood centre. But perhaps they should simply renovate these six blocks, refresh their exteriors and allow the private sector to lease them, much like the buildings at Dempsey Hill.

Preserving these buildings will keep Tanglin Halt Community Plaza intact, allowing us to retain this historically identifiable market square, a familiar surrounding that is rich in more than half a century of history. Such a move will be in line with one of the key focuses of Master Plan 2014: To create community spaces that promote social bonding and interaction between neighbours and visitors.

The residents relocating to the five new neighbourhoods in Dawson are likely to be happy with the quality of their new homes and the fresh 99-year HDB leases. The new flats will feature lush landscaping with sky gardens for residents to enjoy panoramic views of Singapore’s city skyline. A complete array of amenities, with shops and social facilities such as childcare centres and a senior citizen centre, will be included.

However, as with most new HDB clusters, the ones in Dawson will be built with high density, with some blocks as high as 47 storeys. These clusters of towering blocks will give one a feeling of congestion at the lower levels. There will not be much distance between blocks.

Just like the current blocks at Forfar Heights and Commonwealth 10, while they will be attractive in the modern sense, they may feel clinical and lacking in nostalgic charm, with neither history nor heritage. Because none of the old buildings were retained when the area came under SERS, we do not recall the famous Forfar house, which in 1956 was Singapore’s tallest residential building.

The last few fragments of the original Tanglin Halt and Queenstown remain today. While SERS should be lauded, not everything that goes en bloc has to be demolished to make way for new developments. Policymakers should consider preserving the market square at Tanglin Halt Community Plaza by keeping all the six surrounding buildings and, thereby, saving for future generations a vestige of the Queenstown of the 1960s.

Ku Swee Yong is a property agent and chief executive of real estate broker Century 21 Singapore. He is the author of two national bestsellers, Building Your Real Estate Riches and Real Estate Riches.

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